The Way to London
From the author of Secrets of Nanreath Hall comes this gripping, beautifully written historical fiction novel set during World War II—the unforgettable story of a young woman who must leave Singapore and forge a new life in England.
On the eve of Pearl Harbor, impetuous and overindulged, Lucy Stanhope, the granddaughter of an earl, is living a life of pampered luxury in Singapore until one reckless act will change her life forever.
Exiled to England to stay with an aunt she barely remembers, Lucy never dreamed that she would be one of the last people to escape Singapore before war engulfs the entire island, and that her parents would disappear in the devastating aftermath. Now grief stricken and all alone, she must cope with the realities of a grim, battle-weary England.
Then she meets Bill, a young evacuee sent to the country to escape the Blitz, and in a moment of weakness, Lucy agrees to help him find his mother in London. The unlikely runaways take off on a seemingly simple journey across the country, but her world becomes even more complicated when she is reunited with an invalided soldier she knew in Singapore.
Now Lucy will be forced to finally confront the choices she has made if she ever hopes to have the future she yearns for.
“The Way to London manages to combine a sense of epic sweep with a very intimate look at one woman's emotional transformation. I didn't want the journey to end!”
~Lauren Willig, NYT Bestselling author of The Ashford Affair
“An entertaining novel. Lucy's and other characters' resolve to endure adversity
with humor makes this work an appealing one. Recommended.”
~Historical Novel Society
“A wonderful blend of smart writing, memorable characters, and World War II imagery all centered on the hunger each one of us has to give love and receive it. A great
~Susan Meissner, author of A Bridge Across the Ocean
“An engrossing novel of a young woman's coming of age. Like all of Rickloff's novels, the heart of the story is her characters, blended with wonderful storytelling, descriptions and dialogue that compel readers to believe they are a part of the action. The pages fly.”
~RT Book Reviews
“The Way to London is a beautiful story of love, friendship, and the strength of the human spirit set against the backdrop of the tumultuous events of World War II.”
~Chanel Cleeton, author of Next Year in Havana
Singapore, September 1941
Troop movements. Battles. Sinkings. Bombings. Russia resisting. England persevering. Japan rattling sabers. America dithering.
Boring. All of it completely dulls-ville.
Lucy Stanhope turned the page and her attention to the announcement of a Portuguese woman giving birth to septuplets, an Australian man being sued by a wife he claimed he’d never met, a strike of the Great World amusement park’s cabaret girls.
Now, this was news.
Yet still hardly worth more than a quick scan.
She tossed aside the newspaper and waved a languorous hand to signal one of the Singapore Swimming Club’s white-jacketed waiters. It was one in the afternoon. Surely, not too early for a cocktail.
“Miss Stanhope?” he said with a little bow.
“A gin rickey. Heavy on the gin. And could you do something with this umbrella? If I lounge out here much longer, I’ll be pink as a lobster.”
“Of course.” The waiter shifted the wide beach umbrella, casting a shadow over all but her trim ankles. “Will that be all?”
“Can you conjure a breeze? Not one of these pesky little things more water than air, but an honest-to-goodness gust that brings with it a tang of wood smoke and a rattle of leaves?”
“Pardon, miss?” She’d clearly confused the poor chap. He probably assumed she’d started on the gin rickeys with her bacon and eggs this morning.
She didn’t know why she’d spoken. Maybe it had been the six-month-old copy of Woman’s Own just arrived in this morning’s post. All those photographs of sweet fresh-faced girls in hand-knitted cardigans and crocheted wraps like sweet old Granny used to make. Well, not Lucy’s granny. She doubted either the dear departed Countess of Melcombe or the Main Line society grande dame Mrs. Carlton Stanhope III would be caught dead doing anything so plebeian as crocheting. But other people’s grannies. Other people who posed on picturesque stone walls while equally fresh-faced smiling young men in sleeveless sweaters looked on in innocent adoration. Other people who sipped cocoa by roaring fires while playing Parcheesi with Mom, Dad, and little gap-toothed Junior.
One big happy family.
Talk about fictional. Almost as far-fetched as the article she’d just read about Hitler’s being eaten by his pet alligator.
“Never mind. Just the drink, thank you.”
The waiter made another little bow and scurried his way around the crowd of swimsuit-clad women basking on lounge chairs in the equatorial sun, past the patient Chinese amahs leading their little charges toward the pool like ducklings in a row, and finally through clusters of wrought iron tables where wealthy European tuans and their memsahibs picked at their three-martini lunches and chatted about tonight’s dance at the Tanglin Club; the recent arrival of Mr. Duff Cooper and his stylish wife, Lady Diana; and which wives had strayed from their marriage vows with the dashing officers arriving fresh on the island’s shores like a sampan’s catch of the day.
It would be the same tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. On and on into infinity. She was so tired of it all—the pettiness, the triviality. Surely, this wasn’t the best life had to offer.
Lucy turned her gaze to the sea, watching the to-ing and fro-ing of ships in the harbor. Merchant cruisers, great wallowing cargo ships, and passenger liners refitted as troop transports, while the little lighters and trading junks circled like minnows. She fanned herself against the tropical heat and accepted her drink with a smile. The sweet bite of it slid cool and far too easily down her throat.
If she wasn’t careful, she’d be pickled as an onion by sunset.
Not that it mattered. This afternoon’s jam-packed schedule included shopping for a new pair of shoes to go with the frock she’d bought last week, wandering past the Padang to watch the cricketers practice, then dinner and dancing at Raffles Hotel with Lieutenant Chambers . . . Chandler . . . Chalmers . . . or was he a captain? She couldn’t remember and frankly didn’t care.
He’d talk to her about England, his wife and/or sweetheart back home, Malaya’s bloody (insert “heat,” “humidity,” or “bugs” here), while kneading her knee with one hand and smoothing his pencil-thin mustache with the other. Then they’d drive home to her stepfather’s wide verandaed house on Orchard Road, where he’d offer her a chaste kiss good night on the steps to the clashing sound of cicadas and the clinging hothouse scent of frangipani.
It had become a dully familiar ritual in the two years since she’d been forced to give up her dream of a flat in Paris to come to live with her mother and stepfather in British Malaya—thank you very much, Mr. Hitler. Perhaps that’s why she’d been waxing nostalgic about board games and long country rambles. It was simply tedium with the status quo. Had to be. She’d never rambled in her life and she’d rather jab herself with a sharp stick than play a game of Parcheesi.
She lit a cigarette and lay back, sipping her drink.
She didn’t even have Yoon Hai to divert her from this attack of restlessness. He remained trapped on his father’s rubber plantation in Penang playing dutiful son until who knew when. She closed her eyes, imagining their reunion. The way his glossy hair slid like silk between her fingers, the long slender shape of his hands, and the feel of his golden skin against hers. A frisson of delight shivered up her spine to lift the hairs at the back of her neck, and . . .
Cold water obliterated her daydream like a dropped bomb. She gasped, her body unconsciously lurching to escape, her gin rickey spilling in a sticky mess across her brand-new swimsuit to ooze down her thighs and between her legs. A half-inflated beach ball rolled under her lounge chair.
“So sorry. Are you all right?” A young man stood over her, water sluicing off his chest and down his legs to puddle at his feet.
“What do you think?” she fumed.
“If I had to make a guess, I’d say you’ll live to tan another day.”
Talk about someone who looked as if he’d stepped off the pages of a magazine—here was fresh faced with a capital FF. He slapped wet hair off his forehead, cloudless blue eyes barely hiding his amusement at her expense. Had she met him on the dance floor or at the club bar, she might have thought him handsome in a gee-whiz vicar-y sort of way. But as he stood over her dripping pool water, his mouth twitching in silent laughter, she wanted to punch him square in his Roman nose. “‘I might, but your continued survival is very much in doubt.”
He watched her wipe pointlessly at her legs with a towel. “You could just dive in and wash it off.”
“What did you say?” she asked through gritted teeth.
“The water’s perfect. Just dive in . . .” His words trickled to a halt as he took in her well-coiffed hair, her expertly applied cosmetics, a bathing costume never meant to actually touch water. “Forget it.” Then he grinned—the fiend actually grinned—and stuck out his hand. “Corporal Michael McKeegan. And you are?”
“None of your damn business.” She looked around, hoping someone would take pity on her and drag this madman away.
“You don’t sound like a Brit. You a Yank or an Aussie?”
“A citizen of the world.”
The same waiter who’d brought her the drink and moved her umbrella came puffing up, his face a mask of concern. “Miss Stanhope? Can I help?”
He fluttered around her like one of the growing cloud of fruit flies until she shooed him away. “I’m fine. Just . . .” She took a deep breath. “Just clean up this mess and bring me a whiskey neat.”
She stood up, flinging off her silk wrapper, feeling Corporal McKeegan’s smug gaze turn to a look of approval. She started to walk toward the edge of the pool.
“Miss Stanhope?” he said softly, almost apologetically.
She swung around. “What do you want now?”
He pointed to her chair. “Could you hand me the beach ball? There’s a good lass.”
She threw it at him as hard as she could.
It turned out the night’s menu consisted of two wide-eyed navy ensigns happy to leave behind the perils of the North Sea for the sultry—and safer—Malacca Straits.
Lucy laughed at their jokes, listened to their stories, and flirted unabashedly when she wasn’t being swept around the Raffles Hotel dance floor as the orchestra played the latest from Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey. Her gown floated like a cloud, candles flickered like millions of tiny glowworms from every table, and she’d drunk just enough to feel deliciously alive and perfectly content.
A feeling she knew couldn’t last.
A tinkle of musical laughter underpinned by a masculine chorus signaled her mother’s arrival, and an immediate clenching of Lucy’s stomach.
Lady Amelia Fortescue retained the youthful exuberance and delicate girlish features that had captured not one, not two, but three wealthy and influential husbands, and continued to tempt men to her side like bees to a honey pot.
She and her entourage took a table in a small alcove shielded by a bank of potted palms, but Lucy continued to hear snatches of sparkling conversation above the clink of glasses and the pop of champagne corks. Waiters hovered like dragonflies, and every eye in the place seemed focused on the dazzling beauty mugging for her admirers like a starlet to the cameras. In a steel-gray silk organza gown by Schiaparelli and drenched in diamonds, Amelia—as she had always insisted Lucy call her—was the epitome of style.
Lucy’s façade slipped. Suddenly she felt frumpy and out of step, her outfit too gaudy, her manner too gauche. She dismissed her own small following, now sadly less attractive, and sank into a chair as far away as possible from the newcomers without retreating completely.
She fumbled in her purse for a Sobranie. Damn. Her cigarette case was empty. She sighed and settled for a gin fizz . . . make that two. It was shaping up to be that kind of night. At least her stepfather had chosen to amuse himself elsewhere.
“Alone, my dear? You must be losing your touch.”
Speak of the devil, or what she imagined the devil must look like—tall, lean, dark, and smiling.
“Hello, Father.” Fortescue hated being reminded of their familial relationship. He frowned as he offered her a cigarette from his own gold monogrammed case.
“I thought you were dining with Captain Chambers tonight,” he said with a flick of his lighter.
She leaned forward, dragging in a relaxing lungful of smoke. “I did. He had to be back on base at ten. I wasn’t ready to leave so I gracefully declined his invitation of a ride home.”
“My little girl is flying solo tonight.”
“I’m not your little anything, and I have two eager young men vying for my attentions. We came up with a game. I’ve set each of them a task. Whoever returns first gets the honor of my company the rest of the evening.”
“But you’re free now, so how about a dance? I’ve had a hellish day and a turn around the floor with a pretty young thing is just what the doctor ordered.” His eyes shone with a challenging gleam.
“None of your usual pretty young things available?”
His gaze narrowed. “Hasn’t your mother taught you yet that it’s not polite to bite the hand that feeds you?”
“At least not until someone with a better menu comes along. Yes, I’ve learned the lesson well.”
Fortescue’s hand upon the small of Lucy’s back was overwarm, and his fingers linked with hers squeezed ever so slightly as he guided her steps in a slow graceful waltz. “You’re looking particularly nice tonight. One of your little creations?”
“Yes, actually.” She had purchased the gown from a stall in Change Alley, the design ghastly but the fabric a perfect shade of peacock blue. With the removal of the ugly glass beading and cheap lace, along with a few alterations to the bodice and sleeves, it had turned out rather dashing.
“I’ll admit you seem to have a flair for that sort of thing. Can’t imagine where you come by it. Amelia can barely dress herself without assistance, much less sew her own damned clothes.”
“You’d be surprised how much you pick up in the name of academic discipline.”
His smile held nothing of pride or amusement. His eyes remained cold, but for a dark assessing glitter she knew all too well.
“Did you come with Amelia?” she asked in a bid to deflect his unwanted attention.
“No, is she here?”
“You know that she is. It’s why you asked me to dance. You’re well aware that it annoys her.”
“Does it?” He spun her so that she was forced to concentrate on her feet instead of her questions. “Actually, I’ve been at the office since dawn. Nonstop meetings with chaps from the government. Everyone’s up in arms about our lack of preparedness in case of attack.”
“Are we unprepared?”
“Don’t be absurd. The Japs wouldn’t dare attack from the sea. And what army would ever manage to trek through all those miles of jungle? You needn’t worry, my dear. You’re quite safe.”
“I never doubted it for an instant.”
He sought to guide her toward a darker corner of the room, but she quickly pivoted, throwing her weight backward as she one-two-three-ed toward the middle of the floor. He had to follow or look as if he was being tugged like a dog on a leash.
Out of the corner of her eye, she caught sight of one of her ensigns standing with a ridiculous umbrella high in his hand as if carrying the king’s scepter. At the back of the crowd, the other boy pushed his way through waving a bunch of bananas over his head like a trophy. Then Fortescue spun them away and into the shadows of a terrace door and out of sight. His grip never faltered. His hand ran up her back in a gesture of possession.
“I remember when you first arrived in Singapore, fresh from that expensive Swiss finishing school. Tall and skinny like a giraffe on stilts. And now here you are, a ravishing young woman. Quite a coup for the man who finally wins your hand.” He fingered one of her shoulder straps, his gaze taking on a predatory glitter. His breathing grew harsh, the odor of whiskey thick enough to knock her back a step. “I won’t say your heart because you haven’t got one. If you had, you’d have seen how much I desire you and you’d have taken pity.”
He pawed the bare skin of her arm, his pinky ring scratching her. “We’re not related by anything other than serendipity, you know.”
“A fact that has always been of great solace to me.” She slid from his grip just as he lowered his head to take her in a sloppy kiss. By now, her stomach fluttered, and her knees trembled. She tried to keep the waver from her voice, angry at letting her stepfather’s boorish behavior affect her. “If you’ll excuse me.”
She stepped into the light of the dance floor, where he could not follow, though she sensed his angry gaze drilling into her back. Sinking into her chair, she sought to slow her breathing and calm the shudders racing up her spine. Fortescue’s attentions were growing more tiresome and more frequent. Amelia would be no help. A twenty-one-year-old daughter only served to emphasize her own fading charms. She saw her as a rival who must be thwarted at every turn. Normally, Lucy didn’t mind, but tonight she would have given almost anything to be able to curl into her mother’s arms and pour out her troubles.
“Miss Stanhope?” The hotel’s maître d’ hovered respectfully. “A message just arrived for you. The caller said it was most urgent.”
“Thank you.” She read the short note, the knots immediately loosening, a smile touching her lips. Just arrived and must see you. Meet me in an hour. The usual spot. She folded Yoon Hai’s note and placed it in her purse. “I’ll be leaving. Have my car brought round.”
“Of course, Miss Stanhope. And your tab?”
She gathered up her wrap and bag as she rose, her moment of weakness tamped down where it would never show. “Put it on Mr. Fortescue’s account.”
The Botanic Gardens were quiet this time of night, the visitors having departed with the sun. No one would trouble them with disapproving glances or insults hissed behind clenched teeth as they meandered the paths hand in hand or stole a kiss beneath the trees. She met Yoon Hai here as frequently as subterfuge would allow. For both of them, inventing excuses to slip away alone had grown difficult, and finding a place where they would not be discovered by her family or his, nearly impossible.
She leaned her head on his shoulder as they passed cultivated beds of orchids and low ferns, thick groves of rain trees and palms, a long ornamental lake thick with lotus. The loamy pungent aroma of earth mingled with a salty sea breeze. The unexpected shriek of a macaw or cockatoo punctuated the steady whirr of cicadas and trumpet beetles. “I didn’t expect you back until next week at the earliest.”
“My uncle desired my presence at a stockholders’ meeting. Times are tense, and the Yoon family must present a solid front if we’re to survive any unrest.”
“Do you think it will really come to war?”
“It’s not a question of will it come, but when. My family back in China has been fighting this enemy for many years. I’ve been lucky that I’ve been living here and can pretend for a little longer.”
“Fortescue says Singapore is impregnable. That between the British defenses and the terrain to the north, we’re safe.”
Hai didn’t answer right away. She felt his fingers close around hers. “I hope your stepfather is right.”
Suddenly afraid, she pulled him off the path into the shade of a palm grove, her arm sliding behind his neck. He smelled musky and sweet and tasted of wine. “I don’t want to think about it anymore,” she said, cold despite his arms around her. “It’s nothing to do with us.”
He caressed her rib cage and drew her close until she pressed lengthwise down his body. She felt his excitement and heard the quick hitch of his breathing. Her skin prickled with anticipation as he rained kisses along her collarbone and up her neck. The bark of the tree he backed her into was rough as his kisses grew more demanding, his touch more insistent. “Hai?” she whispered.
“Don’t be afraid,” he murmured. “I won’t ever hurt you.”
“I’m afraid I’ll hurt you. I don’t care what people think. You do.”
He laughed, his voice gentle, his caresses turning her limbs to honey. “You care more than you let on.”
She ducked her head, unnerved at the way he seemed to see things within her she dared not admit even to herself. She’d gone to great pains to cultivate her aura of cynical indifference. One was able to conceal so much behind a set of bared teeth and a rapier tongue. Perhaps it was time to move on from Hai. Too close meant too comfortable. And too comfortable meant trouble.
Always had. Always would.
Hai laughed again and then left no more time for breath or speaking.
On second thought, maybe she’d keep hold of him a little longer.